Decadent '70s-chic designer's archives find an unlikely resting place in Nashville 

Harboring Halston

Harboring Halston

Peruse some of the press about the 2010 documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, a look at the legendary fashion designer Roy Halston, whose name, shirtwaist dresses and casual, minimalist glamour are synonymous with the '70s, and you'll hit a curious factoid along the way — one that may very well sum up what New York and Los Angeles fashion people think about Nashville when it comes to our relevance on the fashion radar. Not only are the culture media clearly surprised to discover that the archives of the country's first designer to the stars are housed at a Christian university in Nashville, they can barely disguise their sneers.

"In perhaps the most ironic part of Halston lore, the majority of Halston archives is housed at Lipscomb University, a Christian college in Nashville," sighs The New York Times Magazine in a review of the documentary from last year. Joining in, Elle sniffs, "And now, after a staggering number of corporate acquisitions and inheritances, Halston's sketches, photos, and designs are stored in a downtrodden storage room in Lipscomb Bible College, the irony of which would be delicious if it wasn't so depressing."

But New York fashion-forwards, who famously dissed Halston after he negotiated an agreement to sell his goods in department store JC Penney in the '80s and never seemed inclined to invite him back to the party again — he died from cancer related to AIDS in 1990, after having been fired from his own company — didn't exactly scramble to house the collection.

It was last in the possession of Georgette Mosbacher, head of Borghese cosmetics, who owned the rights to the collection through licensing agreements. Mosbacher received a sizable storage bill one day for the stockpile, and decided it was too much upkeep. She looked for a suitable home, but had trouble finding any takers.

The Fashion Institute of Technology said it didn't have the room to house the dozens of garments, gowns, jackets, ensembles and other assorted pieces from the Studio 54 mainstay's most notable period in the '60s and '70s, including some 200 watercolors or hand-drawn sketches, and loads of TV footage of shows and interviews, including an episode of The Love Boat on Betamax.

So Mosbacher looked into other universities willing to give safe harbor to the archives, and in 2005, Lipscomb — which has offered an increasingly evolved fashion design major for decades — stepped up. (It helped that Mosbacher's mother was a Nashville resident.)

Though it may seem an unlikely place to house such a glamorous and decadent designer's signature work, the collection isn't yellowing in a dusty basement.

"It's being well cared for — and it's costing," says Kathy Bates, head of the Lipscomb fashion department, with a laugh.

It's also getting a workout. Students benefit from the crash course the collection offers in meticulous design and construction.

"We have drawers and drawers of patterns," says Bates. "File drawers full of the manila envelopes with patterns and swatches and names on the outside, like Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball, Jackie Onassis, Bianca Jagger and other New York socialites."

There are patterns for Broadway productions Halston collaborated on such as sketches for Martha Graham productions. Big presentation boards for meetings with JC Penney, whose collaborations, mocked at the time, signaled the beginning of the end for Halston. (A few decades later, designers from Mizrahi to Lagerfeld would strike deals with mainstream retailers that would be heralded as brilliant.) The students study the patterns and use of fabrics in a 20th century fashion class.

"It's just incredible how people have gradually learned where these things are," Bates says. "My understanding is that for lots of these things, we have the only copies in existence."

Bates finds herself fielding more and more requests for access to the collection as word gets out about its location, and has assisted in digging out a lone copy of Time with Halston on the cover as well as rare footage of TV appearances. Without that footage and material, the documentary Ultrasuede would have never been made, and students at Lipscomb wouldn't be able to view firsthand Halston's mastery of draping fabric.

Bates, who has become well-acquainted with the collection over the past few years, marvels that Halston is indisputably a "creative genius" whose pattern work impresses, looking "more architectural than anything in the two-dimensional form."

Now Nashvillians will have the rare opportunity of joining the students in experiencing that handiwork up close. As part of the daily educational panels offered during Fashion Week, the university will display some key garments, patterns and drawings from the archives (also open to the public), proof that a design legend can continue to have an impact on audiences, even from unexpected places.

"We're a small private university, but we're in what I view as one of the South's fashion centers," Bates says. "The kind of growth we've had here over the years with the music and film industry — that equals opportunities for our students. We do a fashion study tour every May [in the Lipscomb program] and visit museums, large department stores, trend forecasting, a designer and a publication — businesses in all aspects of the fashion industry. It helps bring the community of fashion into the classroom."

And thanks to Halston's collection, she adds, "Now Nashville has become an even better setting for that."

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